Feature

Islamic Iran’s American Base

"The Tehran government has an outpost in Manhattan disguised as a nonprofit foundation. This organization has attempted to procure illegal technology and biological agents, and been linked to murder and terrorism. How has it escaped the Clinton embargo?" From our December 1995 issue.

By 11.16.09

As previewed at AmSpecBlog on Friday, November 13, 2009, in wake of U.S. government crackdown on Mullah regime front, the Alavi Foundation:

FROM OUR DECEMBER 1995 ISSUE

The Tehran government has an outpost in Manhattan disguised as a nonprofit foundation. This organization has attempted to procure illegal technology and biological agents, and been linked to murder and terrorism. How has it escaped the Clinton embargo?


HIGH ABOVE NEW YORK'S fashionable Fifth Avenue, controlling a 34-storey complex that once belonged to the Shah of Iran, sits an unusual organization called the Alavi Foundation. According to its charter, Alavi is a non-profit charitable organization run by an independent board of directors seeking to promote "understanding and harmony among persons of all faiths." But according to a classified FBI report of 1994, Alavi is "entirely controlled by the government of Iran."

Although the Clinton administration has declared a complete trade embargo with Iran, little has been done to impede the operations of the Alavi Foundation. The embargo regulations contain no authority to block Iranian government assets in the United States, unlike every other trade embargo currently in force, including those against Iraq, Libya, and the former Yugoslavia. U.S. officials said this was because of unspecified State Department "concerns" (perhaps that old saw that moderates are still lurking behind the Ayatollah's robe). Yet there is much evidence to suggest that Alavi has been engaged in a spectrum of illegal activities, from attempted purchases of embargoed high-technology goods and biological warfare agents to involvement in a brutal 1980 murder in the metropolitan Washington area.

Now an investigation of Alavi has been launched by the New York State attorney general's office, after the subject was raised by Sen. Alfonse D'Amato (R-N.Y.). D'Amato wants state investigators to determine whether the foundation can be shut down. Meanwhile, federal investigators are examining Alavi's links to terrorist organizations operating in the United States and overseas. The foundation's president, Mohammad Geramian, refused to respond to more than a dozen telephone queries for this article, referring this reporter to the Foundation's lawyers in New York, the finn of Patterson, Belknap. The attorneys have adopted a siege mentality, declaring that no questions whatsoever will be answered.

ALAVI USED TO BE KNOWN as the Mostazafan Foundation of New York, but foundation directors changed the name in 1992, fearing the group would appear too closely associated with the Foundation of the Oppressed in Tehran, known in Persian as the Bonyad-e Mostazafan.

Despite the name change, Bonyad-e Mostazafan remains Alavi's parent organization for all intents and purposes. The Bonyad is a multi-billion dollar manufacturing and trading conglomerate run by Moshen Rafiq-doust, former minister of Iran's brutal Revolutionary Guards and a key figure in Iran's international terrorist apparatus. Rafiq-doust played a major role in negotiating the purchase of SCUD-B missiles from North Korea during the Iran-Iraq war. And the Revolutionary Guards are still posted in Lebanon, where they have trained and armed the Hezbollah militia. Hezbollah guerrillas were responsible for the 1983 car bombing of a U.S. Marines post in Beirut which killed 242, and they continue to mount terrorist attacks against Israel.

Hezbollah -- along with Hamas, another Middle Eastern terrorist organization -- is cited in the State Department's annual report on international terrorism. Former FBI official Oliver "Buck" Revell told New York Newsday reporters that the Alavi Foundation "funds a great number of mosques…where there are organizations which directly support Hezbollah and Hamas."

In congressional testimony on September 27, Philip Wilcox, State Department coordinator for counter-terrorism, blamed Hezbollah and Iran for the July 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires that killed 90 people. Argentine government investigators have recently discovered new evidence linking officials at the Iranian embassy in Buenos Aires to the bombing, including the commercial attaché wounded in an apparent terrorist attack in Buenos Aires on October 21.

In a 1992 English-language pamphlet about Mostazafan's activities, Rafiq-doust claimed that the organization has an annual budget in excess of $10 billion at the official exchange rate, "comprising 7 to 10% of the national budget of the country." He also stated that the "Foundation has many overseas establishments such as Vena commercial company in Germany, commercial companies in the United Arab Emirates and Far East, as well as many health and remedial centers in Germany and U.K., an Iranian cultural-sports organisation in Dubai and a [non-profit] institution in New York called New York Foundation." The last is the Alavi Foundation, whose directors still claim they have no direct link to Tehran.

Mostazafan's far-flung international network of trading companies and commercial fronts is being used to purchase sophisticated technologies for Iran's nuclear weapons program, in an attempt to break the U.S. trade embargo and to acquire strategic technologies from the West. Rafiq-doust and Mostazafan are concentrating their efforts in four major areas -- Canada, the United Arab Emirates, Germany, and Singapore.

In Canada, the Iranians are using the state-owned National Iranian Oil Company and its subsidiary, Kala Naft, to purchase U.S. oil field equipment otherwise banned for sale to Iran. Instead of seeking to import the equipment directly to Iran, they pose as local Canadian buyers. The Commerce Department, which is supposed to require an individually-validated export license for such sales when there is reason to believe that Iran is the intended purchaser, has apparently not awakened to the scheme, despite repeated warnings.

In the UAE, Mostazafan has two direct subsidiaries, located in Dubai and in the Jebel Ali Free Trade zone. These firms, along with a series of smaller trading companies, serve as fronts for the purchase of American technology and equipment. The State Department has begun quiet negotiations with the UAE government, which wants to buy advanced American F-15 fighter-bombers, to halt this trade. So far, the U.S. efforts have not met with success.

Singapore has long been a haven for black market arms smugglers, and Mostazafan has set up a special arms trading company there known as Bonyad Marketing Industries, Private Ltd. In addition to spare parts for Iran's U.S.-built F-4 and F-5 fighters, Bonyad Marketing has been purchasing large quantities of Hewlett Packard and Sun Sparcserver computers. Even before the recent trade embargo, Iran could not readily import computers more advanced than old 386 machines. But Bonyad Marketing has had no difficulties in purchasing U.S. machines from less vigilant commercial outlets in Asia.

In addition to Vena Industries in Germany, Iran also owns a private airfield in Hartenholm, near the northern port of Hamburg. U.S. intelligence officials say this airstrip is being used to send nuclear equipment purchased in Austria and the Czech republic to Iran. The equipment is flown into Hartenholm on small private planes, then loaded onto Iran Air cargo planes and sent on to Tehran. The German authorities, when queried about the airport earlier this year by the New York Times, said "it is almost impossible to trace the material being smuggled out by the Iranians."

THE MOSTAZAFAN FOUNDATION got its start in 1979 when Ayatollah Khomeini signed an official decree seizing all the property of the former Shah, including his charitable institution, the Pahlavi Foundation. While Khomeini could not legally seize the New York branch of the Pahlavi Foundation, which owned the 34-storey office building on Fifth Avenue, through a campaign of intimidation he forced the New York board of directors to resign. They were replaced in August 1979 with a new board headed by Manoucher Shafie, an Iranian-American who openly proclaimed his sympathies for Khomeini's Islamic Republic.

Under Shafie's leadership, the Mostazafan Foundation of New York became a vehicle for propagating the ideas and the cause of the Islamic Republic in the U.S. It gave scholarships to Students of the Imam's Line, the radical organization that orchestrated the seizure of the U.S. embassy in Tehran. And in 1980 it began establishing a series of Islamic Centers around the United States, in areas where Iranian exiles tended to flock. One of these centers, in Potomac, Maryland, was run by a radical Islamic teacher who was interrogated by police for his involvement in the July 22, 1980 murder of an Iranian exile hostile to the new regime.

Bahram Nahidian was active in the Muslim Students Association in the late 1970s and was a self-avowed follower of Ayatollah Khomeini. In sworn testimony given during the trial of the accused murderer, David Belfield, Nahidian told the FBI that he had converted Belfield to Islam while the latter was serving a prison sentence in Lorton Reformatory in Fairfax County, Virginia. Belfield fled the country after the murder and later appeared in Iran, where he was granted asylum.

The Potomac Center offers Farsi-language primary school classes that are fully accredited with the Iranian national educational system. It also offers religious education classes for adults and children, and distributes Iranian government propaganda. At the center's bookstore, interested parties can purchase the original version of Khomeini's fatwa -- or religious order -- condemning British author Salman Rushdie to death for having blasphemed against Islam. The fatwa instructs Muslims throughout the world that it is a "religious duty" to assassinate Rushdie. The bookstore also sells videotaped speeches by anti-Semitic fanatics such as the Swiss-based Ahmed Huber, who extols Ayatollah Khomeini as the living continuation of Adolf Hitler.

The current leader of the Potomac Center is Mohammad al Asi, well known to the Islamic community in the metropolitan Washington area and also to the police. For the past seven years, al Asi has held weekly religious services on the sidewalk across the street from the Massachusetts Avenue mosque in Washington. Al Asi was once a prayer leader in the mosque, but was tossed out because of his virulent pro-Khomeini rhetoric. He continues to speak at pro-Iranian political meetings and commemorations at the Potomac Islamic center. Terrorism expert Khalid Duran, who helped research the public television documentary "Jihad in America," produced by Stephen Emerson and aired last November, said al Asi "wants to be the chief Khomeinist spokesman in the United States."

Al Asi has also spoken at conferences of the Islamic Committee for Palestine (ICP), a front group which Emerson called "a de facto branch of Islamic Jihad in the United States." Al Asi is quoted in Emerson's film as calling on delegates at a 1990 ICP conference in Chicago to launch attacks on the United States: "If the Americans are placing their forces in the Persian Gulf, we should be creating another war front for the Americans in the Muslim world -- and specifically, where American interests are concentrated. In Egypt, in Turkey, in the Indian subcontinent, just to mention a few. Strike against American interests there."

In an interview last year, al Asi decried Jews for exercising "inproportionate control over the instruments of government. I would say Capitol Hill is Zionist-occupied territory, I would say the executive building, the White House, is also under a cloud of Zionism -- a Zionist umbrella, and so can be said about the State Department, the Pentagon, etc." According to public tax records, the Alavi Foundation has poured an average of $500,000 per year into the Potomac Islamic Center since purchasing it in 1980. Officially, the money has been used for "religious ceremonies," "Islamic education," and "Farsi-language schools."

But police and FBI officials have long suspected the Alavi Foundation of using its Islamic centers and mosques as a means of penetrating the Black Muslim community in the United States to recruit sympathizers to the Islamic Republic. Several Black Muslims who were involved in the World Trade .Center bombing were recruited at mosques in Jersey City, New Jersey and in Brooklyn. Both mosques received funds from the Alavi Foundation in New York. (Sheikh Abdul Rahman, recently convicted of having masterminded the blast, resided in Brooklyn and frequently preached at the Brooklyn mosque.) Public tax records show that the Alavi Foundation paid more than $1.4 million to the Brooklyn Mosque between 1987 and 1992, the period during which the bombing was being planned.

IN RECENT YEARS, current and former Alavi directors have been caught by U.S. government agents in illegal attempts to purchase sophisticated technology for export to Iran. One scheme to purchase mainframe IBM computers in California, intended for Iran's Ministry of Agriculture, was temporarily disrupted by the Commerce Department's Office of Export Enforcement in 1993. The plan involved no fewer than fifteen front companies on three continents, and Commerce Department officials told a California court that the computer was intended for the Iranian military. Another scheme, exposed by New York Newsday this spring, was an attempt by Manoucher Shafie, a former president of the New York foundation, to deliver a lie-detector machine to Iran's Permanent Mission to the United Nations in New York. (Polygraph machines cannot be exported anywhere without the explicit approval of the U.S. intelligence community, which relies on them to catch the lies of its own spies.) The case against Shafie was eventually dropped because Commerce could not prove Shafie knew the contents of the shipping box, which was closed at the time of his arrest.

Shafie's successor as President of the Foundation, Mohammad Mahallati, was investigated in 1993 by the
Commerce Department for allegedly trying to buy botulinum toxins -- the same toxins that were used by Iraq to make an extremely lethal biological weapon. Mahallati operates a series of trading companies out of an office suite located at 516 Fifth Avenue. One of those companies, the now defunct Al Makasseb General Trading, helped finance the 1993 IBM computer deal. It hardly seems to be coincidence that Mahallati's brother was Iran's ambassador to the U.N. in the 1980s.

The FBI alleges that the brother of Iran's current ambassador, Kamal Kharrazi, is a regular visitor to the foundation's Fifth Avenue headquarters. (When I telephoned the Alavi office and asked for a Mr. Kharrazi, I was told he was unavailable because he and Mohammad Geramian, the foundation's director, were in a meeting.)

Iranian exiles claim that Alavi is used by Iran's U.N. mission to channel funds to a wide variety of propaganda and recruitment fronts, including an Iranian television network in New York, a weekly newspaper published in Rockville, Maryland, and an Iranian business center and monthly business magazine in New York. The center and magazine are located in the same 516 Fifth Avenue office building as Mahallati's operation. They are run by Ali Sabzalian, a former head of the Iranian Interests section in Washington -- Iran's only official diplomatic presence in the United States. The Interests Section and its employees are under close FBI surveillance. But former employees are not.

Although Alavi's projects raise eyebrows within law enforcement circles, its foreign grant program appears to conflict directly with the Foundation charter, which stipulates that "the territory in which its operations are principally to be conducted is the United States of America." In the past fifteen years, the foundation has sent money to Iran, and elsewhere, to support agencies of the Islamic Republic or its propaganda goals.

Among the recipients of Alavi's largesse is the Sharif University of Technology in Tehran, which was established by the Revolutionary Guards Corps during the Iran-Iraq war to train engineers for Iran's armaments industry and its nuclear program.

Since 1987, Alavi has distributed more than $400,000 to a variety of state-run organizations in Iran, including Sharif University, the University of Tehran, Islamic Azad University of Karaj, and a number of medical colleges. U.S. government investigators believe that some of this money was used to purchase gas chromatography and other equipment in the United States which may have been used for Iran's chemical weapons programs. The Foundation also sent money to Iran's Red Crescent society, the organization listed as the final end-user of the deadly botulinum toxins Mohammad Mahalatti attempted to purchase in 1993.

Perhaps one of Alavi's most curious foreign donations is a regular $60,000 annual contribution to the Islamic Education Academy in Cologne, Germany. This money has ostensibly gone to fmance an encyclopedia of Islamic thought, but only a scant two volumes of the work have appeared.

Prof. Abduljavad Fallaturi heads the Cologne academy, and is a well-known Islamic scholar. He has long been associated with the Center for Islamic Studies at the University of Cologne, and when recently asked about his connection to Mostazafan-New York, he initially denied any connection to the Foundation. But Fallaturi later changed his story. After subsequent questioning, he claimed he had received $2,000 from the Foundation.

But later, after Fallaturi had called New York and been told that the payments were a matter of public record, he acknowledged he had received more than $200,000 from Mohammad Pirayendeh in Tehran, who sits on the board of directors of Mostazafan-New York, through the Dresder Bank. Pirayendeh is among those suspected by U.S. law enforcement officials of involvement in arms procurement schemes on behalf of the Islamic Republic.

But the tax records show that Fallaturi received more than $485,000 from Alavi/Mostazafan from 1985-1991. While no explanation is given how this money was used, German intelligence officials acknowledge that their country has become the center for Iran's intelligence and technology procurement operations in Europe. Hit teams sent by Tehran to assassinate opponents of the regime regularly coordinate their activities with the Iranian embassy in Bonn and through a series of Islamic cultural centers in other cities that German intelligence reports have identified as centers of Iranian terrorism.

THE IRANIAN GOVERNMENT is operating freely in the United States under many guises. Through the foundation, its subsidiaries, and a variety of other front organizations operating on the orders of Iran's Permanent Mission to the United Nations and supervised by its Interests Section in Washington, the Islamic Republic keeps its finger on the pulse of American politics. Its representatives regularly attend congressional hearings and lobby congressional offices. Its propaganda outlets make the Islamic Republic the predominant source of news about Iran within the Iranian exile community, through a network that includes television and radio stations as well as dozens of publications.

Until now, the Clinton administration's trade embargo has barely made a dent in the Iranian government's activity in the U.S., although it is completely illegal for U.S. companies to sell even a pencil to Iran. The Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) has already designated thirteen Iranian banks as Iranian-government controlled entities, which can no longer freely operate in the United States or with U.S. companies overseas. One of these, Bank Sepah, operated from the Alavi building. "Sepah" is the Persian word for "Army," but is commonly used to refer to the Revolutionary Guards Corps. (When Rafiq-doust was head of the Guards, he was also called the Minister of Sepah.)

U.S. officials acknowledge there may be constitutional problems in pursuing organizations such as Alavi that could be termed "religious." Closing the Islamic Centers could be seen as a generalized attack on American Muslims, while restricting the activities of a newspaper or television station because it has received funding from an Iranian-government organization could be construed as a violation of freedom of speech.

Still, there would seem to be enough maneuvering room in new counter-terrorism legislation to allow Treasury and other agencies to close down the Alavi Foundation and its very questionable Islamic education centers. The 1994 FBI report states that Iran has used Alavi to establish "covert sub-branches disguised as educational centers, mosques and other centers." But until the United States government makes a coordinated effort to close down Alavi, the hostile Islamic Republic will continue to maintain a strong presence right in the very heart of the Great Satan.

THIS ARTICLE FIRST APPEARED IN THE DECEMBER 1995 ISSUE OF THE AMERICAN SPECTATOR.

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About the Author

Kenneth R. Timmerman is a contributing editor for Newsmax Media. At the time of this article's publication, he was publisher of Iran Brief, a monthly investigative newsletter on strategy, trade, and policy.